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Pussy galore: Bubble-bath webcam spy outrage

Something someone showed me down the pub

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Something for the Weekend, Sir? “I can make money from it, so why not?” This was a soundbite from a Radio 5 Live phone interview with a “Finnish webcam hacker” who claimed to have “sold” the ability to watch women as they sit in front of their laptops.

The reporter and presenters were suitably appalled at the callous and blatant admission, and everyone agreed that it would be best for the government to write some new laws. Or something.

It goes to show how things have changed. RBS chief Fred Goodwin went around saying, “I can make money from it, so why not?” for years without the government batting an eyelid. They even gave him a knighthood for it. In fact, it was Margaret Thatcher’s mantra for a generation. But, good God, we can’t have rank-and-file nutters with comedy Fenno-Scandinavian accents going around saying this on the radio, can we?

As proof, we are told about a young woman who says she “believes she was the victim of webcam hacking”. Will Gardner, chief executive of Childnet International, is quoted as saying that the organisation has further anecdotal evidence of webcams being hacked.

Webcam

“Does my bum look big in this?”

Look, although Google's just patched a bug in Chrome that could allow scumbags to hijack webcams, there's a wider problem here.

There are two meanings for the word anecdote: (1) a short story about a real incident, and (2) an account regarded as unreliable or hearsay.

I believe strongly that anecdotes have their place, especially in defying the bloody bludgeon of statistics. I like the idea of countering impersonal stats, which are laughably easy to fabricate and misrepresent, with a few stories of personal experience by real people.

However, you can’t just repeat an anecdote and call it proof. What if the young woman had been saying she “believes she was the victim of alien abduction”? Would the BBC reporter still be nodding earnestly?

Shockingly, the internet is currently full of webcam hacking anecdotes. Annoyingly, they all turn out to be the same anecdote from the same woman.

I have already written about the great British public wielding their webcams to drag Doctor Duncan’s Video Symptom Show out of the fictional world of Max Headroom into real life - or, strictly speaking, 20 minutes from the future back into the present.

Precisely why people set up their laptops specifically to face their bathtubs is curious enough, but I won’t judge. Nor will I judge a Finnish fantasist imagining himself as Rocco Siffredi (but probably looking more like Ron Jeremy) playing the role of Neo in an Italian porno version of The Matrix [NSFW, natch], dropping a red-a pill-a so that he could watch da young-a woman taking-a da-bath.

What strikes me is that, assuming you believe all this shit, why few beyond the effulgent minds of El Reg readers bother to consider how so-called “ratting”* only really comes into its own with increased mobility of devices.

Beyond these hallowed halls, all the blather about Google Glass seemed to concern breaches of security (which corporations want to stop) rather than invasions of privacy (in which corporations actively participate).

Sure, inventions such as Google Glass could - and certainly will - be misused for personal naughtiness, as hinted in the 1983 movie Brainstorm when a youthful student records himself bonking his girlfriend, leading to his professor being discovered in ‘a bit of a state’ after having spliced the recorded orgasm into a loop for constant playback.

My own personal fear of Google Glass is not so much that I might leave them on while having a post-coital bath so much as while having a post-curry dump, although I am led to believe there may be a market for this kind of thing too.

Tiny hi-res cameras also played a major part in BBC 2’s recent ‘Little Cat Diaries’ Horizon documentary, in which a large number of domestic moggies in a posh village were tracked by GPS and webcams were attached to their collars to see what they got up to by night. We discovered that they chase mice and rabbits, stare at other cats from a distance and say “miaow” from to time, all of which came as a bit of a shock, I can tell you.

Cat on camera

Pussy on camera
Source: BBC

More revealing, though, was that these cats spent half the night walking into other people’s houses and stealing other cats’ food. Sure, it’s just anecdotal evidence but at least it was real. The proof didn’t just involve a pampered domestic longhair loafing on a cushion, telling a credulous Radio 5 Live reporter that she suspected an unneutered tabby was spraying next to her water bowl. We could actually see it for ourselves.

Still, the webcams and GPS units being lugged around by the cats were pretty big. Even the funky Trax GPS gadget, designed for locating your precocious child-actor progeny and dopey family pets who have a penchant for getting lost in snowy Swedish forests, is still palm size rather than red pill size. If I attached that to my cat, he’d throw it off, kick it under the fir tree and urinate on it when no one’s looking. I’m not sure whether my children would do the same but I wouldn’t put it past them.

The limiting factor - according to Soulaiman Itani, chief executive of Atheer Labs, speaking during last weekend’s Reuters’ Global Technology Summit in San Francisco - is the battery. Apparently, the reason we’re not all wearing our computers - rather than carefully propping them on a chair up in front of the bath - is because high-powered batteries to keep these devices running are not small enough. Although simply answering a question put to him, Itani wins this month’s Spirited Away American Dub (“...Haku’s a dragon?”) Trophy for Stating The Bleeding Obvious.

Perhaps when webcams eventually get small enough to be convenient, we’ll have a problem. Until then, let’s just keep getting in a fluster over nothing so we can encourage our responsible governments to pass new laws to prevent us filming each other - while at the same time passing other laws that allow them to film every second of our lives. ®

Alistair DabbsAlistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling IT journalism, editorial training and digital publishing. As soon as he can get internet access upgraded, he plans to install a public-accessible webcam at his Shoreditch publishing empire. It will be facing the sink in the washroom.

* When someone silently installs a remote administration tool (RAT) on your system to, among other things, watch you staring into space.

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